A socio-ecological barrier to regular migration, regularization and healthcare access for Myanmar irregular migrant workers in Thailand

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


The Myanmar people have been migrating to Thailand since the 1980s through regular or irregular channels for better livelihood opportunities. Over the past decade, they have significantly contributed to the economic development of both sending and receiving states. Thailand and Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate labour migration in 2003. The agreement aims to ensure that migrant workers have access to regular employment channels in Thailand and improve their employment rights. Under a bilateral agreement, migrant workers employed under the MOU can stay in Thailand for four years. However, they must apply for visa renewals every two years for the next two years.

Since 1992, the Royal Thai Government (RTG) has issued a cabinet resolution to regularize those who have migrated irregularly or have become irregular after migrating to Thailand. It permits irregular migrant workers to purchase health insurance and work legally for one–two years after registration. However, a large amount of available literature suggests that unregistered migrant worker numbers are higher than the registered numbers. Therefore, this study aimed to examine the push factors for migration, barriers to regular channel migration, how and why some migrants become irregular post-regular migration, challenges associated with the regularization system, and difficulties related to accessing healthcare services among Myanmar irregular migrant workers (MIMWs) in Thailand.

This study employed a mixed-method research design. A total of 398 individuals completed the online survey, and 43 individuals from MIMWs and NGO practitioners from migrant healthcare, labour protection, and legal advisors participated in the in-depth interviews. The quantitative data were analysed descriptively, while the qualitative data were analysed thematically using the socio-ecological model, emphasising intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional, community, and policy factors.

This study found that Myanmar people migrated voluntarily and forcibly due to wage disparities between Thailand and Myanmar, limited employment opportunities, and political and economic instability, particularly after the coup of February 2021. Additionally, officials' corruption, an inadequate monitoring system for implementing an MOU migration recruitment program, long waiting periods, and an absence of bilateral cooperation between Thailand and Myanmar in sanctioning employers and agencies that violate the regulations are significant barriers to regular migration. In addition, the corruption of Thai officials, turning a blind eye to employers who violate labour laws, contributed to several MOU workers' exploitation and irregular employment. On the other hand, the Thai Cabinet resolutions are pro-employers, which means that national interests are placed above the intention to allow irregular migrants to fully legalize themselves, which is the reason for the low registration rates.

Consequently, migrant workers are unable to access and benefit from this policy because of its inconsistent and restrictive nature. Additionally, the significant barriers to accessing healthcare are caused by restrictive policies, exclusions from healthcare services, high costs, discriminatory treatment, and widespread arrests and deportations among irregular migrant populations.

Therefore, sending and receiving states must reform MOU recruitment practices and ensure that existing laws are rigorously enforced to achieve United Nations resolutions on safe and regular migration.
Date of Award30 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorKa Ho Joshua MOK (Supervisor) & Ka Wai Maggie LAU (Co-supervisor)

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